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Chronic nuisance ordinances are forcing people with disabilities out of their homes

Too many 911 calls or unkept lawns led to eviction, a new study shows.

An eviction notice to Shela Wagner is seen on unit 101 of building 5 at the Clover Basin Luxury Apartments in Longmont on Wednesday. (Photo by Matt Jonas/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)
An eviction notice to Shela Wagner is seen on unit 101 of building 5 at the Clover Basin Luxury Apartments in Longmont on Wednesday. (Photo by Matt Jonas/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)

Emily Doe was nearly exiled from Maplewood, Missouri, because crisis hotline volunteers sent police to her home too many times within one year.

Emily, who’s bipolar and suffers from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, called a crisis hotline because she was suicidal. Crisis volunteers sent emergency personnel to her house on three different occasions, and in one instance, she was taken to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation and treatment.

For doing what’s medically recommended — that is, calling for help — Emily received a citation and summons from the City of Maplewood to attend an ordinance enforcement hearing for “generating too many calls for police services.” Had the city determined her a “chronic nuisance,” officials would have not only evicted Emily but revoked her occupancy permit, effectively exiling her from the community for at least six months.

“It’s just so callous it’s hard to believe,” said Sejal Singh, co-author of a new paper titled “When Disability Is a ‘Nuisance'” and published Monday in Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

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The paper elevates the experiences of Emily and others with disabilities who fell prey to chronic nuisance ordinances within the last five years, while offering a comprehensive look into how local laws arguably violate the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the U.S. Constitution. The authors collected this information through public records requests of enforcement records, call logs, and police reports from municipalities throughout the Midwest. They used pseudonyms to respect the privacy of people affected.

Approximately 2,000 municipalities in the United States have chronic nuisance ordinances on the books, and they vary by locality. The ordinances are usually vague, sometimes defining nuisance behavior as whatever city officials decide is an “annoyance” or “inconvenience.” A majority of laws rely on an “excessive” number of 911 calls to make that determination. The authors of the new study found that “vague definitions enable discriminatory enforcement.”

Jane, for example, was evicted from her home after the City of Bedford, Ohio, labeled her a nuisance. Her landlord received a $250 dollar fine and a letter from the chief of police, who demanded the landlord to “abate the nuisance.” Her crime? Calling 911 at least two times because her boyfriend threatened to commit suicide.

The paper highlights another tenant in Neenah, Wisconsin, who was evicted after police responded to two calls within four months. The police were called during the first incident because the tenant’s boyfriend overdosed on heroin.

Richard McGrary, a tenant in Portland, Oregon, living with AIDS, was cited after a city inspector determined the trash in his yard was a nuisance. He wasn’t able to regularly clean his yard because of his illness. Portland issued a warrant against McGary when he was hospitalized for meningitis, charging him with $1,818.83 for the cost of clean-up. He had to sell his home to satisfy the debt.

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Landlords are penalized if they do not remove the so-called nuisance, and the punishment varies. One Wisconsin ordinance fines landlords $2,500 the first time and $5,000 for subsequent violations; other jurisdictions threaten landlords with revocation of rental permits or even property forfeiture; some, like Cincinnati, Ohio, go as far as charging landlords with a fourth-degree misdemeanor for refusing to comply the first time and a second-degree misdemeanor any time after that.

“People who need to call for help because a loved one is experiencing an opioid overdose or mental health crisis may feel that they can’t call 911 because they will lose their homes — and that to me is the biggest harm of these laws,” Singh told ThinkProgress. “We never want anyone to be in a position where they don’t call for potentially lifesaving treatment because of these local laws.”

“It actually harms public safety because what you are doing is creating this culture of fear,” said,” said Alisha Jarwala, the study’s co-author.

There’s extensive research on how these ordinances penalize survivors of domestic violence and disproportionately harm people of color, thanks to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). High-profile lawsuits coupled with public outcry led to federal action in 2016. The Obama administration called on local governments to repeal chronic nuisance ordinances that discriminate against domestic violence survivors or risk violating the Fair Housing Act.

Given the overlap — people with disabilities experience higher rates of domestic violence — the Obama administration said it’d also issue guidance on how enforcement of such ordinances could discriminate against people with disabilities and thus violate the Fair Housing Act. But Obama officials never did. Such guidance isn’t expected under the Trump administration, as the Department of Justice said in 2018 it won’t even force municipalities to follow existing federal guideline documents.

“It seemed very obvious to us that there is a population of people who is simply calling for help and facing eviction for it but being left behind by progress being made,” said Singh.

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“It was really important for us to draw attention to the ways that poor people with disabilities are losing their housing, especially when people with disabilities already have such limited access to housing and face pervasive housing discrimination throughout the rental market,” she added.

Activists have to relied on lawsuits and local lawmakers to mitigate the harm brought by nuisance ordinances. The ACLU of Ohio and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland are currently suing the City of Bedword for its nuisance ordinance, arguing it discriminates against people of color. Maplewood overhauled its nuisance ordinance last year as part of a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU.

Jarwala worked as a paralegal for a law firm that also brought a complaint against Maplewood on behalf of people with mental disabilities, but a district judge dismissed the case.

“Ultimately, they weren’t able to have enough cases to build strong legal claims around that issue,” Jarwala told ThinkProgress, referring to the city’s defense of its chronic nuisance ordinance. “We hope doing some research, sending these [open record] requests, and doing the paper would start to create that body of knowledge that lawyers can draw on when they are bringing disability cases in the future.”

Through its “Not A Nuisance” campaign, the ACLU has also successfully helped pass legislation in nine states that preempt provisions of nuisance ordinances. Most recently, in May, New York passed a law ensuring residents statewide can call for 911 for emergency services without fear of being evicted; Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is expected to sign the bill into law.

“Once folks are aware of it, we have been able to garner political support to address the issue,” said Sandra Park, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “We hope that we can engage in that type of advocacy in other states as well.”

Experts told ThinkProgress that the ultimate goal is to repeal chronic nuisance ordinances. States don’t have the power to eliminate city ordinances, so opponents hope residents demand that of local leaders once they learn about the unintended consequences.